Oxford City Council have recently announced that the budget for funding homeless shelters has increased to £7.4 million for 2020/2021, which is a 19% increase on last year’s budget.

Most of this money will go towards the project underway at 1 Floyd’s Row, a homelessness centre that provides beds for any rough sleeper all winter long (which the council defines as until March) and provisions aimed at helping people move to long-term housing solutions. 

The latest statistics, from November 2019, show that there were 43 homeless people sleeping on the streets. According to Oxford City Council, this represents a 4% decrease from the 45 people sleeping rough from twelve months earlier.

Yet these numbers are volatile. Between September 2018 and November 2019, there was an increase of 10% in people who had been sleeping rough for over six months, and a 24% increase in people sleeping rough for over a year.

These statistics suggest that the council finds it particularly difficult to support long term homeless people, who will often have a myriad of needs that require a comprehensive support network: the two most common needs classified by the council last November were alcohol and mental health related.

Bearing this in mind, the increased funding aims to transform 1 Floyds Row into a shelter specifically designed to help the most vulnerable people- namely those who have been sleeping on the streets long term. The hardest stage of helping those on the streets is the first conversation aiming to take them off the streets and into shelters. The new scheme has specific facilities at Floyd’s Row so that these conversations aiming to shift people to permanent accommodation can occur in a safe, warm environment co-designed by people who have experienced homelessness themselves, aiming to provide a sense of solidarity.

As well as these provisions aiming to initially move people off the streets, the increased funding will go towards instituting professional help for drug and alcohol misuse as well as providing medical provisions. Building work will also be completed to construct extra toilets, showers, improved ventilation, heating, lighting and electrical systems.

Outside of these physical facilities, the councillors are working with St Mungo’s outreach team, which has experience in London and the South of England. The charity has helped four fifths of people they work with leave the streets for good. Moreover, finer details are being paid attention to that don’t necessarily require extra funding but could still have a positive impact. For example, this new accommodation will have separate spaces for women (many of whom are on the streets trying to escape abusive relationships) as well as allowances for dogs to be kept, as it is often important to rough sleepers to be able to keep their pets with them.

It is important to bear in mind that at the moment, whilst the council are providing shelters these are not very popular with rough sleepers. Insights from members of Turl Street Homeless Action (TSHA), a student led group who volunteer on a daily basis to try and provide basic provisions to homeless people, revealed that the vast majority do not feel safe in council shelters.

This is particularly true for recovering addicts, women and LGBTQ+ rough sleepers who represent marginalised social groups. Others are hesitant about leaving their possessions and pets overnight to enter shelters, so hopefully the new spaces for dogs to be kept at Floyd’s Row will encourage more to seek refuge. The only all-women’s shelter closed in 2016, so it will be important to see whether the council’s promise of providing safe spaces for women in this new shelter comes to fruition.

Not all the onus of responsibility should fall on the council, however. Indeed, Oxford University too has a part to play in condoning the crisis. Recently, two sisters sleeping on Brasenose Lane, a location seen as safe due to the presence of porters and cameras, were asked to leave by the Brasenose porters as the sisters were deemed threatening to student safety. The porters informed the rough sleepers that the council had mandated that they leave, when in reality intervention from TSHA revealed that this was untrue. In fact, the local councillor knew these sisters well. Whilst the councillor assured them that they did not have to leave, the sisters felt unsafe and did eventually move.

Rough sleepers across from Rhodes House on Parks Road were also threatened with legal action by the owners for “ruining the view”. TSHA has categorised such incidents as part of a damaging pattern whereby members of the community, be it the university community or that of Oxford in general, take advantage of rough sleepers’ lack of access to council provisions to aim to force them out of sight.

As well as taking personal action, the constituency and indeed the country at large must step up to its responsibility. Lib Dem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, Layla Moran, has spoken up about how Boris Johnson is on track to fail to meet his own homelessness targets: he has declared that he wishes to eliminate rough sleepers by 2024, but this seems to be all words and no action. Moran has suggested a more “compassionate and holistic” approach, beginning with scrapping the Vagrancy Act, which criminalises rough sleeping: Moran calls the law “Dickensian”. Even when the Act initially came into force in 1824, critics such as William Wilberforce condemned it for not taking account the context of why people end up on the streets. The government needs to take responsibility by derailing this law as soon as possible if it is to have any chance of tackling the national homelessness crisis and the attitude to rough sleepers.  

Bearing this in mind, we must all take responsibility for the homelessness crisis that plagues Oxford streets. Whilst the council may be working hard to renovate shelters, all of us can help homeless people attempt to access these shelters. A simple way to do this is to visit www.streetlink.org.uk: either visit their website or download the app. This service enables you to provide details of a rough sleeper which are passed on to a councillor who can provide the best possible support. Street Link has been developed in partnership with St Mungo’s, the charity heavily involved in the Floyds Row centre.

As students who are part of a university with phenomenal provisions, it is often heart-breaking to see people who do not even have a roof over their head right outside college. Sad as this may be, we can all take the opportunity provided by the council’s investment to re-evaluate our stance towards homelessness.

Sometimes the smallest acts of kindness can make the largest difference. Notifying Street Link, doing a shift with TSHA, or buying rough sleepers hot drinks and blankets has an immeasurable impact. Let us take this opportunity set by the council’s precedent to make small positive changes forward in our lives.